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Time passes, and the swim team gets better and better, not in the sense that were ever going to win a meet or even a race that Im not in, but in the sense that no one is turning back.

Tay-Roy is turning into our go-to butterflyer. He operates on power and endurance, and big as those shoulders are, they are amazingly flexible. He doesnt yet have the stroke timing right, but hes down and back in the time it takes any of the others to get down. That alone wont win races, but it will avoid crippling embarrassment.

Chris Coughlin is so glad to be a part of something he works like one of those potato bugs in my bathtub, and hes as happy stroking away belly down on the bench as he is in the water. In fact, he likes it more because he can hear the music better. Weve been democratic about music selection, and Chris likes Christmas music, so interspersed with all the rock and hard-driving country and rap (and Dan Holes 1812 Overture) comes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Chris likes the Gene Autry version.

Water is the very best place for Dan Hole because he cant talk when his face is in it, and the longer hes quiet the more likable he becomes. Simon has realized he doesnt weigh close to three hundred pounds in the water, and after the first two weeks of working out and lifting weights, Interim Coach Oliver thought he saw the outline of triceps poking through the meat. I caught Simon later in the locker room when he thought everyone was gone, straightening his arm to flex, smiling and shaking his head. A boy and his muscle.

Interim Coach Oliver, the permanent uninvited houseguest of All Night, is an entity unto himself. As I said, he knows nothing about swimming, but hes a master motivator and is a better influence the more screwed up the athlete is. Having brought Simon to playing with the idea that theres a Tay-Roy Kibble inside him ready to burst through at any time, hes focused his energy on converting Dan into a regular guy whos able to converse with his peers, demanding ten push-ups every time he uses a word Oliver doesnt understand. Its too early to tell, but I think Dan has a better chance of building his pecs to Schwarzeneggerian bulk than dumbing down his vocabulary for the likes of us. The guy even bitches in high-brow: Im punished for bringing aristocratic flair to the language and vocabulary of these aquatic Cro-Magnons? he says. How can that be?

Interim Coach Oliver belches and says, Youre damn lucky I know aristocratic. I aint so sure which ones were the Cro-Magnons. Gimme ten more.

Interim Coach Oliver created a station system, wherein one station is the pool, one the surgical-tubing-bench-humping swimming, one a series of deck drills-jumping jacks to push-ups to sit-ups to dips. Three minutes all-out in each station, three times around, to the sound of Interim Coach Olivers booming voice, gets us going pretty good when were bored with the tedium of the long workouts. Three days a week we hit the weight room, where Tay-Roy puts us through a killer weight workout he dreamed up after reading how Olympic swimmers weight train.

Dont get me wrong. In the long run a swimmer is the product of, more than anything else, the number of yards he or she can log in the water. Were feeling good on the front end of all this, but when the season starts wed better have some creative individual goals, because were going to get our asses kicked. If I have my way, though, when the season is over, there will be six guys stalking the halls you couldnt have imagined wearing the holy shroud of blue and gold.

Things are less optimistic out in real life. Alicia Marshall must have told Rich she saw me in Heidis play-therapy session because every time I ran into him at school the next day, he squinted one eye as if he was lining me up in the crosshairs, then turned away. He doesnt know I get power knowing he knows I have the goods on him. Hes a guy to watch every minute, though; Ive never forgotten the look on his face the day he shot the deer. It could just as easily have been me.

Its hard to know how paranoid to be. Both Rich and Barbour are consistent in subtly mentioning my roots at least one out of three times they say anything to me at all. The only person I know who relates to being nonwhite is Georgia, and she tells me that while she never forgets her heritage, her job on the planet is to be a voice for children, and thats what she concentrates on first. But Im over forty, she says, and youre almost eighteen. Its one of those things you have to figure out for yourself. Things will look different when you get to college. The inland Northwest isnt exactly the most ethnically balanced spot in the universe. For the most part its not something I spend a lot of time with except when I hear some off-the-wall remark from Barbour, or when Rich Marshall is messing with my head. I said earlier the Aryan Nations fort is about forty miles from Spokane, in the Idaho Panhandle at Hayden Lake. Neo-Nazis from all over the country come there to summer camp, where they have war games and spout mindless slogans of racial purity. Sometimes they obtain a parade permit and march through the streets of Coeur dAlene or congregate in Riverfront Park in Spokane. On the surface these guys look like a bunch of bozos. The Reverend Butler, the geezer who runs it, is articulate enough, but hes crazier than an outhouse rat. And the smartest of the guys who show up for that camp can draw maybe one out of three swastikas correctly. I drove to Spokane to observe one of their rallies last year for a journalism story, and more than anything they looked ridiculous. I said that in the article, but Dad read it and asked if I knew that the guy who opened fire in a Jewish day care in Los Angeles a few years back had ties to those guys. Or whether I was aware a Jewish radio-talk-show host in Denver was gunned down by people traced back to this group. Or that a guy coming from somewhere in the South to support Randy Weaver, the white supremist who held off the FBI at Ruby Ridge, shot two people in the Spokane bus station just because they were a mixed couple. He didnt want to alarm me, he said, but he wanted me armed with the facts.

Truth is, I wouldnt give any of that a second thought-except when I went to cover the story, I swear I saw Rich Marshall standing in the middle of the park talking with one of the officers. They were whooping it up like old buddies. That didnt surprise me all that much, and to tell the truth I couldnt care less generally; he has the requisite I.Q.

But the next day he catches me just after Ive said good-bye to Carly in Wolfys parking lot and pulls his pickup in close just after I open my car door, trapping me. He says, Hey, Jones.

Hey, Rich.

Hypothetical question.

I take a deep breath, appear disinterested. What, Rich?

Lets say you got married and had a family. And lets say the Department of Childrens Services made up a bunch of bullshit to keep you away from your wife and kids. He waits.

Okay, I say, lets say that.

And lets say you find out some guy who aint got no business within ten miles of your family gets himself involved.


What do you do with him?

Nothing, Rich. I just do whatever I have to do to get back with my wife and kids.

Not me, he says, pointing his trusty forefinger at me, bringing his thumb/hammer down. Not me.

I shrug and get into my car, waiting for him to pull back so I can close the door, and then sit there waiting for the adrenaline flow to ebb.

Ten minutes later at All Night, I tear the water up; swim two-hundred-yard repeats leaving every three-and-a-half minutes until I can barely drag the paddles through the water, forcing my elbows high through each stroke, sending deep burning pain into my shoulders and chest, trying to replace the fear and contempt in my gut. Maybe this is Rich Marshalls purpose in my life, to make me faster.

An hour and a half later I drag my dripping butt out of the water and head for home, only to rise-now more pissed than scared-around four to return for some distance work before the rest of the guys show for the station workout, and find Icko waiting for me.

Icko is Interim Coach Olivers new acronym. Yesterday I started calling him our I.C.O., but when Chris Coughlin heard it he was convinced I was spelling the name so he wouldnt understand something, like they do at his home. I tried to explain about acronyms, but that went about as far over his head as you can go without escaping gravity, and he started calling Oliver Icko. As I tried to explain it for the tenth or eleventh time, Oliver overheard me and said, Hey, I like it. Icko. It has a certain ring.

I said, Yeah, like already chewed food, or snot running into your mustache. Ick-O!

Icko told me to watch it.

At any rate, when I show up now, a little after four, hes already up. You got a minute, chief? He follows me to the pool.

I say, Whats up?

I been watching what you call a swim team pretty close, he says, and no matter how hard I watch, it dont look like any swim team I ever saw.

I said it was a little raw.

Raw? Hell, I seen open, seeping sores aint as raw as this team. Ever notice youre the only actual swimmer? Hell, you look like one of them boys in the O-lympics.

I tell him its the same principle as my parking my Chevy Corvair next to some really ugly cars in the school parking lot. He says I couldnt find an ugly enough car to make a Corvair look Olympic, but he gets the point.

There some kind of vendetta goin on at school about this team?

What do you mean?

Well, he says, you know the Barbour kid, the one that works for Marshall Logging in the summer? The football stud?

Mike, I say. Mike Barbour. Yeah, I know him.

I seen him stacking up little slow Chris back behind the hardware store.

Shit. Did he hurt him?

Naw, Icko says. I done what I used to do with my boy.

What was that?

Picked me up a piece of rebar.

You used to hit your kid with rebar?

Icko laughs. Never thought of that. Naw, I just stood there talking to him real reasonable, you know, sayin he ought to increase his circle of friends enough to include people like my friend Chris there, while I bent the rebar into a horseshoe. He seemed to understand.

Was Chris okay?

Yeah, I guess. You know how he dont say much. Well, he was sayin less than that. He liked the rebar thing, though. Cept he thought it was a magic trick. Asked me to teach it to him.

I ask Icko if he knew why Barbour was bugging Chris in the first place.

He says, Somethin about a letter jacket. I didnt understand. I mean, the kid was wearin that Speedo jacket he always wears.

Man, Mike Barbour is a one-trick pony.

So later in the morning Im doing lunch in Simets room, bringing him current on the progress of his semi-landlocked mermen, advising against his applying for the job with the mens national team.

He says, What are your goals?

A small cattle ranch outside Albuquerque, I tell him. A few longhorns-

For the season, he says.

Swim as fast as I can. Get the gold.

That it?

Letter jackets for the downtrodden, one and all.

Thats still the big deal to you, isnt it?

Still is.

Coach Benson caught me in the teachers lounge this morning, he says.

You must have been delighted.

Not particularly. He was feeling me out for swim team letter requirements; said he thought it was great I was getting a team going, though I should have talked you into going out for football if I really wanted to do the school a favor, rather than create a whole new sport for you.

I love that they all want me. What did you tell him?

I told him I didnt create swimming; its been going on a long time. Told him about a couple of guys named Schollander and Spitz.

Simets as big a smartass as I am.

He said he knew the letter requirements were up to me, but he hoped I wouldnt diminish what it means to be a Wolverine. Mike Barbours name came up, along with a couple of other ball players; and yours, of course. Said they were concerned that you were trying to make a sham of it.

Its already a sham. Im just exposing it.

You got something going on with Mike Barbour?

I shrug.

Well, I dont know exactly what this is all about, but remember I have to live here after youre gone. We can be creative, but I have a certain respect for athletics myself, so dont push it too far.

I promise I wont push it too far. But like I said, Simets one of those guys who remembers what it was like to be a kid, so I figure too far is quite a ways out there.

CHAPTER 5 | Whale Talk | CHAPTER 7